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SFMOMA Official Who Defended Censorship of Black Former Employee Steps Down

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (Jeremy Thompson/Flickr)

SAN FRANCISCO — Nan Keeton is resigning as deputy director of external relations at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) weeks after the museum came under public scrutiny for censoring the comments of Taylor Brandon, a Black former worker who spoke against institutional racism at the museum. It is the first high-level staffing change to emerge from the institution’s reckoning with what critics call pronounced structural inequities. 

On May 30, as protests against the police killing of George Floyd began to spread nationwide, Brandon commented on the museum’s Instagram post featuring Glenn Ligon’s 1996 screenprint, “We’re Black and Strong (I).”

The former SFMOMA communications worker called the post a “cop out,” criticizing SFMOMA for only amplifying a Black artist “during a surge of black mourning and pain” without providing a meaningful statement. The museum has a “history of using black pain for their own financial gain,” she wrote, naming Keeton, director Neal Benezra, and marketing officer Ann von Germeten as “profiteers of racism.” Her comment concluded, “Museums kill black people too.” 

SFMOMA then deleted her comment and disabled comments on the post, prompting outcry.

In an all-staff meeting on June 2, Keeton told workers: “Some of the comments violated the terms of the platform as it created potential threats to individual staff and the museum, and we chose to disable all of the comments. […] This language threatens the safety of the museum and its staff.”

Following media reports on Keeton’s comments, Benezra issued a public apology June 4. “The decision to limit comments was not consistent with our values as a museum,” he wrote in a statement. “I take full responsibility for the museum’s actions.”

This Monday, June 29, Benezra announced in an internal note that Keeton and SFMOMA “have mutually decided to part ways.” Keeton’s last day on the job is Thursday, July 2. 

The museum declined to provide further comment. Keeton, who started at SFMOMA in 2013, could not be reached for comment. 

Earlier this June, Brandon, along with artist collectives Nure and CTRL+SHFT, formed the No Neutral Alliance to publicize their experiences of anti-Blackness at SFMOMA and other museums and urge institutional accountability. In a statement to Hyperallergic, No Neutral Alliance said that Keeton’s resignation does not fulfill any of the five demands the organization included in an open letter last month. These demands include Benezra’s resignation and the implementation of a “Black-oriented program directed by a local Black arts professional.”

“We have yet to meet with Neal Benezra and museum leadership after asking repeatedly for a meeting agenda, and continue to advocate holding institutions accountable for their history of racist systems and practices,” the group said. 

“We would also be interested to hear directly from SFMOMA’s board of trustees,” it added.

This week, No Neutral Alliance began releasing annotated email correspondence with Benezra. In the emails, Benezra writes that he is willing to provide demographics information about SFMOMA’s art collection and staff but declines to meet certain terms Brandon requests for meeting. Benezra also writes that the museum is developing a Diversity Action Plan.

Another group of former SFMOMA workers, called XSFMOMA, is collecting accounts of workplace discrimination and recently issued demands complementing those of the No Neutral Alliance, alongside a call for artists to boycott the museum. The XSFMOMA demands include reducing compensation for senior staff and redistributing the money to laid-off and furloughed workers.

Current workers say internal organizing remains focused on bread-and-butter safety issues related to reopening, including hazard pay and policies regarding mask regulation for visitors. The museum has undergone two rounds of layoffs since closing to the public in March, renewing organizing efforts among the staff labor union and criticisms of museum leadership.

Keeton’s resignation isn’t the only high-level staffing change in the wake of these campaigns. Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture, is reducing his schedule to three days a week. Although Garrels’ title will remain the same, according to an SFMOMA spokesperson, curator Sarah Roberts will now lead the department.

Garrels’ receipt of a no-interest home loan from SFMOMA has emerged as a symbol of the chasm between wealthy higher-ups and the frontline workers who have struggled to win San Francisco cost-of-living raises in recent years. (Benezra also received a home loan). 

Current workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity say staff pressured Garrels to acknowledge the privilege the loan represents in a recent meeting. A new Instagram account collecting testimonies of racism and discrimination at museums anonymously published a quote the workers attributed to Garrels: “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” 

Garrels, who was not immediately available to comment, made a similar remark on a panel about “creating visibility for women in art” this past January. “I’ve reassured artists we will continue to collect white men,” he said, laughing.

An SFMOMA spokesperson said in a statement that Garrels’ schedule change is “at his request,” and in effect today, July 1. Roberts became a full curator last spring and “very effectively” performed creative and administrative duties, the spokesperson said. Garrels will continue to lead painting and sculpture accessions and serve as the museum’s liaison to its collectors forum.

SFMOMA’s current and former employees have made clear that their reckoning with the museum and their demand for equity are far from finished. 

“Our fight isn’t backing down because [Keeton] is gone,” said one worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In fact people are emboldened to step up and make demands of executives. We want to see an action plan.”